Menu Planning Backwards and Forwards

We all know it saves time and money to plan a weekly dinner menu. It's easier to resist impulse buys at the market. You can get to the actual cooking sooner when you don't have to spend time figuring out what you're going to make, then see if you have the ingredients, then (if you're like me) figure it out again because you don't have the ingredients. You're also more likely to eat a healthy diet and less likely to cop out and pick up a Big Mac, because you know you're going to pull together a nice chicken Caesar salad when you get home from work.

Tools You Can Use

Fortunately, when it comes to menu planning, there are lots of tools and software to help you get started:

  • You can use menu planning software.
  • You can just use Google Calendar, Google Docs, Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, or whatever makes it easy for you.
  • You can do like I do, and just use a plain old piece of paper and pencil. (I recommend a pencil rather than a pen. You'll probably want to re-arrange your choices more than once.)

The Best Time to Plan

You can start your plan either before or after you've done the grocery shopping for the week. The advantage to planning before is that it makes it easier to stick to a list and resist expensive impulse buying. If you plan after grocery shopping, however, you can take advantage of specials you didn't know about or maybe some cool new produce that the store (or farmer's market) didn't stock last week, and then build your menu around those items.

Schedule It Out

Personally, after I make my weekday grid, I write down the week's schedule. If I know there's a meeting on Tuesday night, I'll plan a salad or soup or other one-dish meal. If the adult kid is coming to visit on Thursday, she'll get something special to welcome her. (You may also want to think about weather. If, for example, the forecast predicts it to be cool early in the week, we can have a casserole on Monday and sandwiches or a salad later on in the week as it warms up.)

Use Everything Up

I'll use a piece of scrap paper to write down what I already have in the house. This is good even if I'm going to go shopping after I make my menu because it will use up veggies that are getting old, or use up what's currently in the freezer. I consult my local market's sales flyer so I can focus on what's on special that week.

I'll also write down a couple meal ideas that I've had requests for from family members. (It could be the spouse is jonesing for some tuna or I've been thinking about a nice creamy mac and cheese all week.) If I'm drawing a blank, I'll look in my cookbooks for ideas. (If you cook with recipes, this is the time to pull them out or do your search and write down a few ideas.)

Putting It All Together

Then I start thinking about putting it all together. I've got a whole chicken in the freezer, some green beans and cabbage in the crisper, and pork chops are on sale at the market. The trick is to think about balance. Unless you really, really love chicken, don't plan chicken two nights in a row. I usually like to plan one night with animal protein, one night without.

And don't forget your side dishes! I like to make sure that each dinner has at least two veggies, and if I'm using a recipe, I'll note where to find it — in a book or the file or the internet.

Plan, Plan, Plan

Another thing to think about is cooking ahead. I've got that whole chicken, and if I roast that for Sunday dinner, I can use the leftovers later in the week for chicken sandwiches. If I make up some extra coleslaw on Monday to go with the mac and cheese, I won't have to make it on Friday to go with chicken sandwiches (which means an easy meal at the end of the week and less temptation to call out for pizza because it's the end of the week and I'm tired).

Stay Flexible

A menu is simply a blueprint or guideline. You don't have to stay wedded to it. If, for example, the weather suddenly heats up, you can make a macaroni salad instead of the mac and cheese. If it has been the day from hell and you're late and tired and just can't bear having to pull out a pan, then it's time to swing by the Chinese place and bring home orange chicken.

Having a menu is one less thing I have to think about, so I can relax and enjoy cooking dinner with my husband, knowing that we will have a tasty, healthy dinner that's also saving us money. You can't top that!

This is a guest post by Anne Louise Bannon, a freelance journalist and blogger.

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Guest's picture

Thanks, I hope to use some of these tips. I need to get more organized (ugh) and I know this will help us eat better and save money.

Guest's picture

Thanks for the great reminder that staying within budget and calories really starts with planning! I'm looking forward to a lot of ideas from the forum for how they save money and still make yummy meals.

I usually buy a rotisserie chicken from my local grocery store on Sundays because they are $4.99 on sale. I add the chicken to a salad and will make a sandwich from the leftovers. What I also do is cut up the remaining chicken add it to stir fry veggies in a pot. Throw in some brown rice, two eggs, soy sauce, and Viola! Chicken fried rice.


Guest's picture

Imagine my surprise when I updated my google reader feed and saw one of my own pictures in your post!

Guest's picture

Even better - plan after looking at the grocery store flyers, but before going grocery shopping. Combine with a chest freezer for maximum convenience and savings. =)

Guest's picture

My husband and I have been trying to plan like this, but we are incredibly lazy. But we're also very computer oriented. I've found my free account at makes menu planning super easy. I don't even have to write out a list because the recipes I choose that week put all the ingredients on a shopping list for me. Just browse, print, and walk into the store!

Guest's picture

A dry erase board is a great tool for meal planning. You can go to an office supply store and get a dry erase board that's a monthly calendar, or you can make your own with a blank board using a permanent marker to draw the grid. Get one with magnets and put it right on your fridge. I like that it's easy to refer to, but also easy to change if my plans change.

Guest's picture

love this idea of a dry erase board! thx

Guest's picture

Remindng me to plan is a very good thing. Having a list helps me to not overspend. I also must remember not to shop when hungry...mmmm!

Guest's picture

We always start our meal planning by looking at the fruit bowl, the fridge, and the garden to see what needs to be used up before it goes bad.

Thise last year we've been trying to make one new pressure cooker recipe every week - we got a couple excellent cookbooks (I love Lorna Sass) and we're not all the way through them.

THEN we think of other things we just feel like eating (the four year old gets to choose one meal a week), check the pantry & fridge to make sure we have everything for the list of meals, and make the shopping list.

It sounds complicated, but now that I am used to it, I think it's actually easier than sitting down on Sunday and thinking "What will I want to eat on Wednesday?" And we had a goal this summer of eating out once a week, to help the local restaurants and get out of our rut...but we keep not doing it because we have garden produce that needs eating, at home.

Guest's picture

After you have the menu, write all the ingredients you need to fulfill it. Then copy the list (or store it on Word). Now, mark out everything you already have on hand. Save the original list and menu. After you do this 12 times, you have three months of menus that you can pick from, copy, cross out what you don't need and head to the store. Double that many menus, and you have 6 months! That's 6 months of not having to think about what to make for dinner, no list making. Just grab and go. Use a blog or to identify stock piling items on sale at your store and after about 3 months, your grocery bill will start to fall dramatically and you'll have a little extra time as well.

Guest's picture

I got this awesome program that helps with my menu planning Making menus and counting nutritional information is So easy now. Does anyone have any other good ideas?

Guest's picture

having a plan will def help me . whith kknow plan the spending the eating everthing is out of control. planning will help with my diet too

Guest's picture

I am very non-fussy about food - simple is good, vaguely yummy is good, and reasonably healthy is good. Those are my 3 aims when I cook dinner. Using up everything in the cupboard is great, just chuck it all in the pot - add lots of veggies.

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That's good that we can take the home loans moreover, this opens up completely new opportunities.